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Cranmer rips election of Dawida supporters atop airport authority

Friday, July 30, 1999

By Mark Belko, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Allegheny County Commissioner Bob Cranmer said yesterday he might withhold his support from the airport authority he helped to create after a big campaign contributor to and a close supporter of Commissioner Mike Dawida were elected to lead its board.

 
Robert Lewis, newly elected chairman of the Allegheny County Airport Authority, at yesterday's first meeting. (Peter Diana, Post-Gazette) 

An incensed Cranmer said the elections of Robert Lewis, who contributed $25,000 to Dawida's campaign in 1995 and $20,000 to his campaign this year, as chairman, and state Rep. David Mayernik, a Dawida friend and supporter, as vice chairman, tainted Pittsburgh International Airport with the kind of politics he wanted to end by establishing the authority.

"I've never been this disappointed since I've been in office. This was a wire job. It was manipulated. I'm not going to politicize that airport. I won't allow it to happen. I'm just not going to allow that airport to be politicized."

He said the appointments also played "directly into the hands of the critics" who maintained that the authority would be little more than a political dumping ground for the lame duck commissioners, who leave office at year's end.

"I have made it very clear that I did not support Bob Lewis from the beginning because of the political connections. Politics has won, but I haven't lost," he said.

Although the authority already has been created by Cranmer and Dawida, Cranmer has the power to kill it by refusing to approve the agreement to transfer Pittsburgh International Airport and Allegheny County Airport to the authority to operate.

 
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"I don't know why [Cranmer] is so upset," Dawida said. "It's the sort of thing Larry Dunn would say, not Bob Cranmer."

Dawida said he did not understand Cranmer's objections because the outcome of the vote was by no means unexpected.

Dawida said that when the seven members of the prospective authority were chosen by county commissioners about a month ago, it was with the stipulation that they would vote for their own leaders from among their ranks. And that's what they did.

As for Lewis' contributions to Dawida's campaign, "That's irrelevant and beside the point," Dawida said.

Cranmer said after the elections he was evaluating his options.

"I'm disappointed because my purpose for this airport authority was to take it out of politics completely," he said. "I made my point clear from the beginning of the direction I thought the authority leadership should take. Obviously, that's not the case."

Cranmer had supported Thomas J. Murrin, dean of Duquesne University's A.J. Palumbo School of Business Administration and a former U.S. deputy commerce secretary under President Bush, for the chairmanship.

"His credentials and standing in the community are impeccable. To have someone of that quality not be the chairman to me is beyond my comprehension," he said.

Murrin, who ended up board treasurer, abstained on the chairman and vice chairman votes, saying afterward he was "not sufficiently familiar with either of the candidates to, in good conscience, vote them into such an important position."

The other board members -- Neal Holmes; Glenn Mahone; Mary Pat Soltis, who was elected secretary; and state Rep. Jeff Habay, R-Shaler -- voted unanimously for Lewis and Mayernik, who voted for themselves and each other.

Dawida opened yesterday's inaugural airport authority meeting after he and Cranmer had sworn in the board members at their meeting.

He remained for the chairman's vote, then left the courthouse and was unavailable for comment for the rest of the day. Lewis, the head of Orbital Engineering Inc., Uptown, had been Dawida's choice to lead the authority since talk of its creation began in 1997.

The fallout from the board elections represents the first major split between Republican Cranmer and Democrat Dawida, who teamed almost two years ago to run the government, and could drive Cranmer back into the arms of his ex-GOP partner, Larry Dunn, who opposes the airport authority.

Dunn said he "would work with anybody" to stop the authority from taking wing.

"I do believe it's wrong, and I do believe the election of Bob Lewis shows the total politicization of the airport authority, and it shows the motives from the beginning, certainly of Commissioner Dawida, in forming the authority. It's not good government. It's bad government," he said.

Dunn said it was "outrageous" that Lewis was elected chairman even though he is not a resident of Pennsylvania. Lewis, head of Orbital Engineering Inc., Uptown, maintains his official residence in Florida, though he owns property and pays taxes in Allegheny County.

Lewis defended the arrangement, noting that under the state municipal authorities act one nonresident is permitted to serve on the board as long as he or she pays taxes in the jurisdiction.

He denied that politics were behind his election. Mayernik, D-Ross, said the vote "speaks for itself."

"By that vote, we've been entrusted to use our expertise and background to lead this new authority," he said.

Holmes said there were no other nominations for chairman or vice chairman.

"There was an opportunity for other candidates to be nominated, and it was puzzling to me that no one else stood up or was recommended for nomination," he said, adding that he wasn't interested in either post himself.

Cranmer has objected to Lewis' appointment for more than a year. His opposition grounded the authority since early 1998, until after the May primary election when he and Dawida, who was defeated in the county executive's race, decided to move ahead with the understanding the authority board would select its officers without political interference.

Cranmer clearly suggested that that was not the case.

"I made my point clear on Bob all along, that I did not support him as chairman. I'm very, very, very disappointed with some people. I'm disappointed with people on the board," he said.

For the last month, the authority has come under attack from Dunn and Democratic county executive candidate and county Coroner Dr. Cyril H. Wecht, who have questioned its need and criticized the appointment of political contributors and such supporters as Lewis, Mayernik and Port Authority chairman Holmes.

Controller Frank Lucchino also has objected, saying the authority would strip his office of its watchdog role over the airports.

The authority board unanimously approved a draft transfer agreement yesterday that gives Lucchino some auditing tools but not nearly the kind of all-encompassing powers he has now. He has already rejected the proposal. He could not be reached for comment.

The board's approval of the agreement was contingent on approval by the Federal Aviation Administration and review by a board committee made up of Murrin and Mahone.

Board members began meeting yesterday even though their terms do not officially begin until January. Until the transfer agreement is approved by the commissioners and the FAA, it has no authority over either Pittsburgh International in Findlay or the county airport in West Mifflin.

Dianna Wentz, a Wecht campaign spokeswoman, said Wecht "finds it most ironic that Commissioner Cranmer suddenly finds the airport authority to be too political" given that he originally supported Wecht's election opponent, James Roddey, Cranmer's former campaign chairman, for the authority chairmanship.



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